I had a thing for pelicans even before I saw Judy Irving’s poetic film, PELICAN DREAMS, about her own obsession with these beautiful birds. Her last film, THE WILD PARROTS OF TELEGRAPH HILL, brought us into the world of those beautiful birds who reclaimed their wildness in the heart of San Francisco. With PELICAN DREAMS, she takes us to the coast, where pelicans flew before man evolved, and into their fascinating private lives, and what happens when man and bird intersect.
We talked about how she got those incredible slo-mo shots of pelicans diving, why they remind the rehabilitators who take care of them compare them to dogs, and what it was like to film the pelican’s breeding cycle on the Channel Islands. No matter what the specific topic, though, what came through in talking with Irving was her awe and wonder these creatures inspire in her, emotions that were strengthened over the course of her filming them, and even getting to know a few personally. What surprised me most was that even though she was so close to several birds, she never tried to pet one. I was shocked, but then she revealed that she had encountered a pelican on an Australian vacation years before she have even thought about making her film, and she described the sensations she experienced approaching a bird in the wild and being welcomed, sort of, by it. My last question to her was about the influence filming volunteers working with wildlife had had on her, if she was now volunteering herself at a local refuge. The answer described what I can only describe as a holy moment between fellow creatures honoring each other.
PELICAN DREAMS is her poetic, insightful documentary about those eponymous birds and our relationship with them. Irving has been a fan of pelicans most of her life, but it wasn’t until a wayward pelican landed on the Golden Gate Bridge here in San Francisco that she started planning a film about them. The bird was subsequently named GiGi, in honor of the bridge, and Irving followed her progress from capture to rehabilitation while also exploring the experience of pelicans at large when they interact with humans, for both good and ill. What we come away with is a renewed sense of wonder at these unique creatures who are so superbly adapted for their aquatic life, but so vulnerable to encroaching civilization. Irving wrote, directed, filmed, edited and narrated the film. Her previous work, in collaboration with Mark Bittner, her partner in films, avian adoration, and life, was THE WILD PARROTS OF TELEGRAPH HILL.